The Story of an Apollo 16 Astronaut Who Left a Family Photo on the Moon

The simple gesture has humanized the Space Race and man’s quest to reach the Moon and beyond.

Photography remains an important part of documenting the most unforgettable and ground-breaking moments in history. Of these events, there’s nothing more incredible than sending the first men to the Moon. Apollo 16 and subsequent missions brought home a lot of breath-taking and iconic photographs that speak of both mankind’s greatest achievements and biggest dreams. However, alongside all of these important photos is a rather unknown and unexpected one: a family photograph left by one of the Apollo 16 astronauts in 1972. The poignant story behind it was recently revisited on a Reddit thread.

“On April 20, 1972, Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke took his first steps on the moon. He was 36 at the time and is the youngest human in history to ever walk on the lunar surface,” wrote Reddit user dnadosanddonts on the thread. “While he was on the moon, he left a photo of this family portrait of him, his two sons, and his wife, which remains on the moon to this day.”

Duke wrote on the back of the photo: “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.”

As often mentioned on popular photo books and websites, the photo has become a symbol of the “human side of space exploration” over the years. However, it’s also worth noting that since over four decades have passed, it’s highly likely that the photo is no longer in good condition. The temperature on the Moon goes up to 260 degrees Fahrenheit when in sunlight, then drops to minus 280 degrees at night.

“Shrink wrap doesn’t turn out too well in those temperatures. It looked OK when I dropped it, but I never looked at it again and I would imagine it’s all faded out by now.”

There’s no way to find out now how much the photo has faded since it’s too small to be spotted by lunar satellites. When we put into perspective the fact that the footprints made by Duke (and the other astronauts before him) are still largely unchanged, we realize that something as simple and impermanent as a photograph can be a symbol of all the hopes, achievements, and aspirations of all humanity.

Additional readings:

Behind the Blue Marble: The Story Behind the Iconic Image